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Scent in a bottle

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A logical approach to tracking


Scent in a bottle, hereafter referred to as SIAB, is a totally different approach to tracking training. First you get good and sweaty, take off your shirt and immerse in a gallon of distilled water, wring out, wipe the sweat off again, and immerse/wring again. Now you have your scent in a bottle.

For your first lesson, you take undiluted SIAB and put it in a spray bottle (clean, new) and set it to stream. You shoot a stream in a line right before you, as you walk, so that not only is there a stream of scent, but also a place for your skin rafts to adhere to as you walk over it.

You bring the dog out to the start (marked or unmarked, scent article or not, your preference) and wait for the dog to investigate—click and treat—then you work on lengthening the duration of the behavior. You progress by both increasing the mist factor (widening the path of the spray) and by diluting the SIAB, until you aren’t misting at all anymore.

A purist uses the CR and treat at the end (or every article), while a not-so-purist uses occasional food drops. You start on a relatively untraveled concrete surface, and progress from concrete surface to asphalt to packed dirt to loose dirt to gravel to grass.

This may sound a little wacky, but think about it…rather than a lot of initial confusion over exactly what scent the dog is following (is it crushed vegetation, disturbed dirt, what???) the dog is learning that the human scent is the element to be tracked. You start with a relatively pristine surface, and you can see the line yourself to "help" if need be. After watching Alix track on asphalt with a deep nose and total concentration, I became a believer.

I must give total credit to Steve White, K-9 Handler and Trainer, for the name and the concept. It was Steve who introduced me to the idea of tracking without food drops—something I was very uncomfortable with at first. Now that I’ve done it, I see a definite application for this type of training. In many ways, I feel that this is a wonderful way to teach a dog how to discriminate among scents. I think it’s a great skill to develop before going into any other scent detection arena.

Alix was my test dog. I was reluctant to use her as my "trial" of SIAB but I was also looking at the total picture—I wanted her to be able to track anywhere and anything. I’ve started dozens of dogs on food drop tracking. I even started Alix out with the food drop method…but I wasn’t happy with the results. She was so interested in scent, period, that she was overwhelmed with the possibilities she found in grass. EVERYTHING was something to track. The food made her frantic, as she debated whether scent or food was more important.

Starting Out

I’ll try to address the questions I had when I was starting out.

  1. Surface. Concrete pads are wonderful–business parks, or school basketball courts if they’re around, are very nice, and have good crevices for hiding treats. This is a little different from how Steve does it, but I like to hide a treat in a crack or crevice at random intervals. I don’t like my dogs turning to look at me on a track, and that’s why I do this. This requires that I know where these are so that I can click at the appropriate time.
  2. Length of tracks/turns. My inclination is to start small. I usually start with a 20 or 30 foot track, max, unless the dog is teeny-tiny, because it’s really hard work. Alix had maybe three conventional tracks under her belt before I started SIAB, and they were basically abysmal. She was ALL over the place investigating interesting scents. So I laid three tracks initially on a concrete half-basketball court. I laid each using paint lines or crevices as visual markers for myself, because it was warm enough that the SIAB evaporates by the time you’re done. (there’s still a good bit of scent, but no visual cue). I tucked soft, small treats into the occasional crevice, and each track was about 30 feet, going in different directions so that she’d have experience with differing wind conditions. Remember, this was as much a test of the method as a way to train her, for me. She did so well, and tracked with such concentration, that I tied her to a post and laid another track, this time with a 90 degree left turn, first leg about 20 feet, second leg about 40 feet. She never lifted her nose through the turn, just followed her head. That’s when I was convinced.
  3. Progression. Let the dog determine. Some dogs have excellent stamina at scentwork, others do not. You don’t want to discourage your dog. Help when needed, but don’t be in too big a rush to assist. I found that initially I was letting Alix plow ahead after treats, when she needed to regroup a little–so by not moving until the head was back down all the way, she learned to regulate herself. Some people believe in serpentines. Do NOT do these unless you absolutely know where they are, because of visual clues on the pavement, or something. It’s too easy to forget where everything is, and reinforce incorrectly. As far as surface progression goes–take it as you feel you can. I tried asphalt within a week of concrete, and I waited a month to go to grass because I wanted the style to be really there before going back to a surface with so much "background noise." Once I tried grass, I started to mix tracking surfaces, so that we’d start on short grass, move to long grass, through dirt patches, then concrete, then back to grass.

For Alix, I think SIAB was really a concentration exercise. She learned how to focus, and she really needed that.

In the years since I started Alix in SIAB I’ve started a number of other dogs, and have changed some of my technique. Instead of spending a lot of time with SIAB, I use SIAB for the introduction to hard surface and move very quickly to stocking feet tracklaying in the Dutch tradition (Jan de Bruin, Rotterdam Police Dog Training Center). How fast I move to regular tracklaying depends on the dog. My most recent dog had four tracking training sessions (two SIAB, two stocking feet) before attending a two-day VST seminar with regular tracklaying, and did just fine.

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